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Writing

New Roles for Artists in the Information Age

Jeff Gates

The futurist Alvin Toffler writes extensively about powerful culture and social shifts now taking place in our world and how to cope with the resultant changes. Astute politicians and cultural critics study him as we all struggle with yet another "New World Order."

Understanding the nature of information and its dissemination offers us important clues to our future. Adjustments will have to be made in the way artists work if we are to survive and prosper. And if artists are the antennae of the society, as Ezra Pound once said, then society at large can also learn from us, noting how we process and use new technological tools.

In his book The Third Wave, Toffler discusses three major social shifts in human history: the agricultural, industrial and information revolutions. In the agricultural age, which lasted tens of thousands of years, isolated, self-sufficient communities not only grew all their own food, but also produced everything necessary for their lives. Artists, as object-makers and ritual leaders, played a central role in village life, with a direct impact on both the economic and belief systems of their communities.

The Industrial Age marked the invention of labor- and time-saving devices during the 19th century. With the help of these machines, more goods could be produced than any one isolated community needed. And new markets developed for the excess. Advances in transportation, with the development of steam power, the railroads, and the internal combustion engine, led to the growth of these markets.

Artists, too, became producers of goods to be bought and sold in an art marketplace. The processes of art making and the cultural importance of being an artist within a community became secondary to the objects they created for sale. As their products were bought and sold by middlemen such as galleries and dealers, their place and importance in society moved from the center toward its edges, in guises ranging from manufacturer to malcontent.

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In the United States, around the mid-1950s, a shift to an information-based economy began to emerge with the increased use of television and computers and the development of networks to transport information to its "markets." In recent years, this change has accelerated as faster transit forms have developed and knowledge itself has become a marketable commodity.

Today the Internet and the Web are becoming ubiquitous parts of our lives. Unlike television, where we are the passive recipients of mass cultural programming, the Net allows users to create content as well as to receive it. To draw on the often-used highway metaphor, TV is a one-way street while the Internet is a broad, two-way boulevard. More specifically, the Net offers multiple ways to interact with content and its producers. Whether it is business-to-business or peer-to-peer, new connectors and means of production are forming.

Artists' roles in this latest technological age are yet to be determined. However, we can play a vitally important role in the emerging society, thanks to skills we already possess and apply in our work. With the shift from a manufacturing-based economy to an information-based one, artists have the chance to once again position ourselves more centrally in our culture as information providers and interpreters.

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© 1996-2002 Jeff Gates. No reproduction in whole or in part may be used without prior consent of the author.

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